As the months count down to Fortnum & Mason's 300th birthday celebrations, in October 2007, the Queen's grocer is undergoing a £24m overhaul. One-third of the genteel Piccadilly department store is behind hoardings and, over the next year, entire floors will be ripped out and refitted. The only thing that will remain untouched is the boardroom, with its country house furnishings and eclectic collection of antiques.
It is the culmination of a rollercoaster 12 months for the upmarket corner shop. The 7 July terrorist attacks led to a sales slump of between 20 and 30 per cent year-on-year as tourists stayed away. Then, as the festive season got under way, nerves steadied; in the week before Christmas, sales were up 70 per cent on the same period in 2004.
But the retailer couldn't keep up with demand for its famous food hampers, and many customers were told they would not get them until after Christmas. Disgruntled shoppers were only too happy to share their annoyance with the press.
Yet six months on, with the overhaul in full swing around her, managing director Beverley Aspinall, 47, is in her element. Her previous role as managing director of Peter Jones in Chelsea, part of the John Lewis group, involved a £100m, five-year refurbishment. So Fortnum's two-year project is no stretch. "I have built up a taste for being in construction."
Aspinall joined John Lewis in 1981 and worked her way through a series of management and buying roles until taking the Peter Jones job in 1997. Despite that influential role, and her 24 years at John Lewis, she was persuaded to swap one prestige name for another after an approach from a headhunter. "Fortnum's is such a fantastic brand - a bit of a dream ticket," she says. "It has great heritage and history and is well respected, but has not reached its pinnacle."
Founded in 1707, when William Fortnum, one of Queen Anne's footmen, took a room in the house of shopkeeper Hugh Mason and the two went into business together, Fortnum's was floated on the London market in 1939. The British branch of the Weston family, the Irish-Canadian retailers, steadily bought stock in the business, taking full control in 2001. Jana Khayat, the granddaughter of Garfield Weston, was installed as chairman shortly afterwards.
"She looked at the company's long-term strategy and ways of growing the £40m turnover," says Aspinall. "UK business had been buoyant but the board was not happy with the amount being sold internationally, particularly in Japan, where it had little control over its many wholesalers."
Khayat ended a number of international relationships. "Withdrawing was a big step back in order to go forwards," says Aspinall. "What people perceive as having been a difficult time for Fortnum's - the last two to three years - was while this new strategy got under way. It was a painful process."
The company now trades with a smaller group of partners and in 2004 Fortnum & Mason Japan was set up as a Tokyo-based joint venture. International business comprises 10 per cent of sales. "It's not huge but we see it as a growing proportion of the total," says Aspinall. "The brand is very well known in the US and Japan."
Not as well as it is in Britain, though, where in rebuilding the Piccadilly store, Fortnum's home for the past 80 years, Aspinall must find a balance between increasing sales and profits and staying true to the brand's heritage. "You have to be careful to retain the best of what you have and move it gently forward, without throwing out your strengths," she says. Her plan is to shift away from being a department store and focus instead on four core areas: food, wine, entertaining and "celebration", otherwise known as gifts.
Although most famous for its food hall, Fortnum's has suffered over the years for being more a tourist draw than the sort of store Londoners would use regularly. Aspinall is trying to address this by increasing the amount of fresh food on offer, so customers don't just make the odd visit for Christmas treats or to drool over the vast chocolate counter.
Not everyone is happy with Aspinall's plans, with many customers upset that old stalwarts such as fashion and hairdressing have been closed. "We have had to take some hard decisions," she says. "Inevitably some people are disappointed.
"[But] they realise we have to protect ourselves for the longer term and grow the business, and that we have to be sensible how we do it - 65,000 square feet is small for a full department store."
And for all the sadness about the passing of old favourites, many people don't know the half of what the store has to offer because they don't visit all the departments. A huge percentage of the customers never get out of the food hall and off the ground floor. To put this right, an atrium is being built as a central connection between the floors and new signs are being fitted to try to improve circulation.
Aspinall is also confident that Fortnum's won't have a repeat of Christmas 2005 when, despite the enduring popularity of its hampers, the massive uplift in demand took the store by surprise. "We are planning for a much bigger increase this year, which we are bravely buying for."
The internet is another growing area but not one that Aspinall is marketing aggressively. "We are doing it gently, quietly and organically. We want to ensure our fulfilment is 100 per cent."
Online sales are currently up around 59 per cent on last year. "It helps to compensate for the loss of shop sales," she concedes. "Floors will now close as Fortnum's goes through the renovation; we knew we'd take a heavy knock while this was going on." She expects overall sales to finish the year down 3 per cent. "Considering the disruption, I am quite pleased with that."
The big question for Aspinall, however, is whether her plans to lure in not just tourists and grande dames but a new range of urbanites will bear fruit. Because if they don't, the future of the Queen's grocer is by no means guaranteed. As she concedes: "Our 300-year history does not give us a magic right to be here for another 300."
BORN 14 December 1958.
EDUCATION BA in linguistics, University of York.
1981: joins John Lewis Partnership as a graduate trainee.
1982: section manager, John Lewis, Milton Keynes.
1983: department manager, John Lewis, Welwyn.
1985: merchandise manager, John Lewis, Brent Cross.
1987: central buyer, John Lewis Partnership.
1989: department manager, John Lewis, Welwyn.
1990: childrenswear buyer, John Lewis Partnership.
1992: merchandise manager, John Lewis, Welwyn.
1994: assistant general manager, John Lewis, Oxford Street.
1995: managing director, John Lewis, Peterborough.
1997: managing director, Peter Jones, Chelsea.
2005: Fortnum & Mason, managing director.
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